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If Ripa was among the first iconographical theoreticians to realize the importance of structure and systematization in this field, others did not follow his path until the beginning of the Detail of Durga Slaying the Buffalo Demon. Relief sculpture, Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu, India. Although the study of iconography is not limited to the visual arts, and indeed can be applied to textual or verbal material, it is still considered primarily the purview of the art historian. © GIAN BERTO VANNI /CORBIS twentieth century. Informal, loosely defined, and independent structures were developed at the end of the nineteenth century with many scholarly studies in which related concepts and themes were grouped together, and significant and dominant subjects were discovered with the amassing of large bodies of visual data. It was from such studies that the twin applications of methodology to cataloging and interpretation developed. The former, albeit on a less-developed basis, was in place prior to Panofsky's work.

The need to organize large visual collections using meaningful and practical guidelines led not only to the creation of formal principles but was directly responsible for Panofsky's work, which could only have emerged with such a platform in place. This work was initially undertaken in the photo archives that developed at the start of the century. It must be remembered that because no guidelines existed for the handling of such material, the organizational principles in use largely emulated those of the traditional book library—a policy that has caused some difficulties. The primary cataloging principle in visual collections was organization on a national basis (French, Italian, Spanish). This was followed by the maker's name (Fragonard, Giotto, Goya). The output was iconographically subdivided (portraits, male, landscapes, still life, abstract), depending on the complexity of the artist's output. Such subject headings could also form the primary access point to the material, as in the case of the Index of Christian Art or the Rijksbureau Voor Kunsthistorische Documentatie in The Hague.

Whereas such structures were broadly similar in their construction and could include any number of themes (usually referred to as subject headings), there were no existing principles or guidelines with which to determine terminology or structure. This was to change with Panofsky's pioneering study, which provided a framework for interpreting and understanding iconography and iconology. His threefold division of interpretation and understanding also examined the psychology and mental processes involved in creative work:

  1. The first level is a description of the factual (or expressional), termed the "pre-iconographic description," in which uninterpreted subjects are enumerated. This level does not require any in-depth knowledge of either the work or its context, apart from the ability to recognize what is represented.
  2. The secondary level, iconographical analysis, involves an understanding of the subject matter. It "constitutes the world of images, stories and allegories" (Panofsky 1939, p. 14) and requires an analysis of the pre-iconographic material, which can be derived only from a familiarity with and knowledge of the themes and concepts represented. The recognition of such themes can be based on external sources (such as textual material) and may be extensive, but it is usually acquired from familiarization with the material.
  3. The third or iconographical level is the most complicated of the three and involves an understanding of the intrinsic meaning or content, constituting the world of "symbolical values." This level requires "a familiarity with the essential tendencies of the human mind" and attempts to place the deeper meaning of the work (if it exists) within the realm of the conscious. Such deeper meanings cannot be immediately recognized.

Why Panofsky completely reversed the use of existing terminology remains a mystery, but it was probably to accommodate his structure, which in itself is slightly unsatisfactory because of its inability to formulate a satisfactory term for the first level. The three divisions are clearly structured as a paper system, but in reality the speed with which the human mind culturally contextualizes subjects at a pre-iconographic level slightly blurs the three divisions. Considering the cultural associations everyone possesses, and which must be applied at a conscious or subconscious level, it is difficult to disentangle the various levels into coherent thought processes. Nevertheless, Panofsky's legacy was to influence art-historical studies for many generations. His pioneering work, even in the early twenty-first century, forms the basic principle for iconographical analysis. In Roland Barthes's (1973) semiological system, the terminology and structure of "sign," "signifier," and "signified" was influenced by, and is remarkably similar to, Panofsky's.

Panofsky's theories were also to provide an ordered framework for developing methodologies in subject classification. Even in the early twenty-first century, whether in computerized or manual format, most classification systems structure a tripartite division that, although slightly out of sync with Panofsky's system, nevertheless mirrors it in essence. Such structures differ from Panofsky's in their relationship to user needs.

  1. The first of these is usually the broad level descriptor or general subject heading, such as portrait or landscape—an iconographic descriptor at its broadest.
  2. The second is the pre-iconographic description of the work—the generic elements in the work, such as bridge, lake, table, and so forth.
  3. The third level is the specifics of the work—for example, an identified person's name, the name of a battle or of a bridge—an amalgam of the iconographical and iconological.

Most cataloging systems fail to address iconological analysis, leaving such work to scholarly researchers. One of the basic requirements for iconographic classification is consistency and standardization, and it was this factor that led one of Panofsky's colleagues, Henri van de Waal (1910–1972), the next great iconographer of the postwar period, to discuss with Panofsky in 1948 the principles of iconographical analysis. Their discussions resulted in what is now the most widely used iconographical system in the world, ICONCLASS. This alphanumeric system, published between 1973 and 1985, divides what can be represented into nine divisions, with further subdivisions to the specific. For example, 73C14 is the code for the Burial of St. John the Baptist and is based on the divisions:

7: Subjects drawn from the Bible

73: Subjects drawn from the New Testament

73C: The public life of Christ from baptism until the Passion

73C1: Story of John the Baptist

73C14: Burial of John the Baptist

Systems may appear in natural language or coded (as in ICONCLASS) and use the construction of subject headings, thesaurus-based terms, or free text descriptions.

With the advent of computerization to art history (and the computer's application to iconographical studies in particular), such systems have proliferated, highlighting the popularity of subject analysis but also increasing the visual material available for scholarly research which has, in many ways, brought about a renewal of interest in iconography. However, no matter how structured or developed the classification system, the inherent difficulties and, ultimately, the impossible task of describing the visual with the verbal remain.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Hydrazones to IncompatibilityIconography - Historical Development, Cesare Ripa (fl. 1593), Émile MÂle (1862–1954), Erwin Panofsky (1892–1968)